The Pitfalls of Programmatic Pragmatism

Illustration by Sonja Benton

In her first Monday Morning Memo of the year, MSU President Waded Cruzado directed the campus to an article MSNBC published in June. The link led to a story that praised Montana for achieving the highest increase in percentage of adults with a college degree. The article also showcased MSU for being on the cutting edge of developing graduation-rate boosting policies.

For a country falling behind in secondary education, such a heady lead (6 percent increase compared to the next closest, 5 percent) is worth investigating. Though a blend of unique policies and programs are examined in the article, the overall tone points to one fundamental reason behind Montana’s success — practical, no-nonsense pragmatism, illustrated in this quote from the article:

“‘Let’s get ’er done,’ he said, as if preparing to herd cattle on a ranch.”

The ‘he’ in this article is the education advisor to Montana’s governor. The cattle? Students enrolled in the Montana University System.

Wait — what?

Montana is receiving national praise for adding value to higher education, and this is the reason? It seems we have taken our land-grant mission a little far when educational leaders in the state liken our students to herded animals, free-range or not.

The article highlights MSU as an institution that has developed new ways to spur on higher education. Programs such as ChampChange and other initiatives are cited as methods that help students, while administrators Matt Caires and Waded Cruzado are quoted explaining the ethos behind MSU’s dedication to students.

This is admirable, but upon closer inspection of the numbers, such examples are less illuminating. The data shows Montana leaping ahead in growth of degree-holding citizens between 2008 and 2010. Cruzado was officially inaugurated in 2011. Caires was appointed in Fall 2011. ChampChange began in 2010.  What effect could ChampChange, or other programs created by our new administration, possibly have on graduation rates between 2008 and 2010?

Perhaps this is being too literal. The article was using programs — and administrators — such as ours as symbolic examples of innovation within the state of Montana. Sure. But maybe we shouldn’t pat ourselves on our hard-working backs too soon.

Programs like ChampChange, successful though they may be, are useful in a limited sense. They may improve the “college experience,” but they achieve this in a manner that appears to be driven by the University’s need to boost enrollment, not on students’ needs to expand — or discover — their educational horizons. These programs don’t always ask what kind of education a freshman is receiving in between pep rallies and free auctions, nor do they challenge students to question why they chose to pursue a degree. They are dependent upon what lies beneath the promotional events. This is a concern of which other universities looking to implement similar programs need to be aware.

At Montana State, retention initiatives are backed up by a relatively engaged and excited campus culture. Our administration, faculty, staff and student body offer a motivating and challenging support system for incoming students. By encouraging students to plug into these groups and initiatives on campus, or offering one-on-one guidance, the programs can connect students to meaningful opportunities.
But without an independently existing campus culture, we are connecting students to nothing more than programs designed to appeal to their desire for free iPads. These solutions aren’t helping students’ personal development nor our reputation as a leading institution of education.

After all, education is a balance of challenge and encouragement. And I expect those in charge of administering and promoting our educational opportunities to critically evaluate every aspect of that balance. Governor Schweitzer, it appears, might not be up to the task, as he states in the article:

k to a college of technology to get a life skill to get a job.”

This approach to the education-job market relationship might simplify matters more than pragmatic concerns dictate. Similarly, programs that aim to boost retention at the expense of recognizing the hard decisions students make when deciding to attend college is troubling. Especially when these practices — and pragmatic mindsets — are touted as admirable on a national scale.

At the end of the day, students must be prepared to decide for themselves what they want out of their time at MSU, and every other university. And if they are not, students will have to be prepared to be shuttled, like cattle, from Convocation to pep rallies to graduation, in hopes of raising the retention rate once again.

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